Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships


How to Resolve Values Conflicts, Impasses, and Cutoffs Effectively

By Peter Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

 The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/vc.htm

Updated 02-28-2015

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      This article focuses on an unavoidable personal and social stressor: values conflicts. Typical adults don't know how to identify and permanently resolve these clashes. This means their kids probably aren't learning to do that either.

      This brief YouTube video previews what you'll read here: The video  mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

      This article...

  • defines and illustrates values conflicts

  • suggests three basic reasons they occur;

  • summarizes typical responses to these conflicts, and,,,

  • offers specific suggestions on how to resolve values conflicts, impasses, and relationship cutoffs effectively.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this  Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thr 4

  • an overview of three common relationship stressors

  • an overview and example of win-win problem-solving

What are Values Conflicts?

"I like red meat. You like fish."

"You’re a "night person," and I feel most alive and alert as the sun rises."

"You’re a 'Right-to-Lifer,' and I support women’s choices on abortion."

"You're a liberal Democrat, and I'm a conservative Republican;"

"In child discipline, I believe in imposing parental punishments. You believe natural consequences usually work better."

"I think planning for the future is vital. You think living in the present moment is more important."

"Niko won't let me play with her Nintendo. I let her play with my stuff!"

      These all are differences in personal beliefs, priorities or preferences - values - not right/wrong absolutes like "child abuse is wrong - period." Our rich mosaic of human cultures and personalities guarantees that all people, families, organizations, and nations will have minor to major values conflicts.

      Each child and adult (like you) evolves a unique way of coping with these stressors. Some ways are more effective than others. When two conflicted people each refuse to compromise their values for a greater good, an impasse occurs. The underlying causes of major impasses can strain or wreck relationships and families, and cause aggression, legal suits, and wars.

Internal Values Conflicts

      Premise - normal kids and adults develop a group of semi-independent subselves that comprise their personality. Each subself has unique talents, limits, goals, priorities, and views of the world, like players in an orchestra or sports team. Depending on how well they're led, groups of subselves (personalities) can range from chaotic to harmonious - in general, and in confusing, conflictual, or dangerous situations.

      One implication is that average adults and kids can develop internal values conflicts between their subselves, causing confusion, uncertainty, ambivalence, and double or mixed messages. The most complex, stressful situation occurs when two or more people have simultaneous internal and mutual values conflicts, and no one know that or how to separate and resolve them effectively.

      Reality check - think of several key relationships in your life now. From time to time, do you each  experience significant differences in beliefs, preferences, and priorities? Can you describe how you personally and mutually react to these clashes? Now reflect: do you also experience internal values conflicts ("I want to stay in touch Mom, so I'll call her today." / "But that will lead to frustration and disappointment again, so don't call!")?

Premises - The quality of any relationship over time depends partly on how effective partners are at admitting and resolving their internal and mutual values clashes. Minor kids depend on their adults to teach them how to identify and resolve conflicts effectively. Do you agree? Did your caregivers do that for you?

          Is there a best way to react to values conflicts? I vote yes:

      Common Responses to Values Conflicts

       When adults and kids encounter these unavoidable stressors, they (you) unconsciously choose responses they learned from early mentors, hero/ines, and experiences, like...

  • Explain and lecture - "Let me show you why your (value is) WRONG, and I am (my value is) RIGHT! (You must agree with me or you are bad or stupid, and I will scorn, reject, and/or punish you);" This is a common type of toxic black/white (two-alternative) thinking. Or we...

  • Avoid, minimize, deny, and/or withdraw - "Hey, no big deal (if we disagree), OK?" or (silently) "If you confront me with our conflict, I'll tune out, collapse, or leave;" Or average kids and adults...

  • Submit, (pretend to agree) deferring to the other person's value to avoid discomfort - i.e. discounting yourself and your integrity (losing self-respect); Or we seek to achieve...

  • Genuine acceptance and compromise - "No one is right or wrong here - we're just different on this point (e.g. a tomato is not "better" than an armadillo.) Let's (a) brainstorm and compromise or (b) if we can't find a middle ground, let's agree to disagree for the sake of our serenity and relationship, and move on"

       The first three of these strategies inevitably reduce self and mutual respect and mutual trust over time - i.e. they harm our wholistic health and relationships. The first response implies "I'm smarter / wiser / better than you are." This usually evokes hurt, resentment, and fighting or fleeing - specially if a false self is in charge.

      The second and third responses leave the conflict unresolved, and weaken personal integrity and the relationship. If both people choose the fourth response, they're most apt to keep their self esteems and maintain or improve their relationship. Even if people agree with this premise, they may not be able to do it. We'll see why in a moment.   

What Causes Values Conflicts?

      Typical values conflicts are symptoms of three underlying primary problems: individuals' psychological wounds + unawareness + ineffective communication.

       In other words, values conflicts are often not the real problem. Note that the way people try to resolve their internal and mutual values conflicts (e.g. the first three responses above) often increases hurt, frustration, anger, and disrespect.

      And if child-caregivers don't learn to...

  • accept and reduce the three underlying problems above, and to...

  • resolve internal values conflicts first, and then...

  • compromise or agree to disagree with each other and...

  • teach these things to their kids, then...

their young people enter adulthood vulnerable to major personal and relationship stresses at home and at work, causing their aging caregivers heartache and stress.

      So what should people (like you) do about these common disputes?

Resolution Options

  • Work at Lesson 1 toward having your subselves trust and follow your wise true Self (capital "S"). S/He knows how to negotiate inner compromises!

  • Work at Lesson 2. Give special emphasis to learning the skills of awareness and digging down to discern your primary needs at the moment. Learn to distinguish between values ("I prefer broccoli to sushi") from needs ("I need you to admit that my value is 'right'.")

  • Adopt the attitude that when values conflicts happen, no one is "right" or "wrong" - just different.

  • Learn the concepts of...

    • internal and mutual values conflicts, and win-win compromises. Then...

    • agree with key adults and kids on clear definitions of each of them. Then...

    • expand your vocabularies to include these terms and definitions ("Hey - looks like we have another values conflict here. Let's brainstorm.")

  • Agree on your rights as equally-worthy, dignified persons. Then...

  • Clarify and learn each other's personal priorities. Many values conflicts are about priority differences.

  • When internal and interpersonal values conflicts happen together, help each other...

    • acknowledge that without blame ("I have an inner values conflict now.") and...

    • identify and compromise the internal conflicts first. That usually requires...

    • your subselves (personalities) to be guided by your true Self (capital "S").

  • Watch for and avoid power struggles. Those are usually caused by protective subselves who distrust the wise resident true Self and focus on winning.

  • When you can't find an acceptable compromise, agree to disagree for the good of your relationship and family harmony - unless doing so feels like a violation of your integrity and self respect.

      If your personal wholistic health and dignity is not your top non-emergency priority, you're probably dominated by protective false selves. When viable compromises don't appear, a useful tie-breaking question to discuss is...

"Which alternative is best for our relationship, long term?"

  • As you learn to use your version of these options, help each other...

    • adopt a long-range vision (e.g. the next 25-30 years); and...

    • apply them to any loyalty conflicts;

    • patiently explain and model these ideas for your kids, relatives, and lay and professional supporters.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - what are your active subselves thinking and feeling now? If you have thoughts like "Whoa - this looks like a lot of work!" - you're right! So is living with escalating relationship stress from the three sources of unresolved values conflicts! Can you name them?

      Experiment with these options and see what happens. You can tell if they "work" well enough if you and your conflict-partners feel...

  • heard and respected well enough;

  • satisfied with the communication process between you, and...

  • you each can genuinely accept whatever compromise you've agreed on without significant resentment, hurt, anger, anxiety, and/or guilt.

      If these options don't work well enough, review your resolution process a step at a time - as teammates, not opponents. The two most common blocks to these steps working are (a) unseen psychological wounds in one or both partners, and (b) not using the seven communication skills.

  Special Cases - Impasses and Cutoffs

      Two common symptoms of major unresolved values conflicts are impasses and relationship cutoffs. Have you experienced these? Let's gain some perspective on them using the ideas above.

Resolving Impasses

      Try saying your definition of "an impasse" out loud. How would you describe this concept to an average 12-year old? Then describe...

  • your normal reaction to an impasse, and...

  • whether your reaction is usually effective or not (Do you each get your main needs met well enough?). Finally,

  • decide whether you want to improve how you deal with impasses..

      Microsoft's Encarta dictionary defines an impasse as a "block to progress or agreement: a point at which no further progress can be made or agreement reached." In a family context, an impasse is "a stressful situation involving conflicting perceptions, values, and/or needs in which no one is willing to compromise."

       Major impasses can cause or promote family violence ("rage attacks"), addictions, abuse, affairs, relationship cutoffs (below), avoidances, criticisms, antagonistic "camps" of relatives; psychological and legal divorces, and desertion. Each of your family adults and kids will form their own opinion of what a "significant" impasse is. Disagreeing over these definitions is a values conflict!

      Do you remember how the adults who raised you dealt with impasses? Do you feel they did so effectively? Did they teach you how to deal with them? Have you or others taught the minor kids in your life how to recognize and resolve them well?

What Causes Major Impasses?

      If you've witnessed or experienced a significant impasse, keep it in mind as you consider what follows. When someone won't compromise, one or more of these core reasons probably apply:

  • one or both people are...

    • ruled by false selves (wounded) and don't (want to) know it, or...

    • they don't know what to do about it.

    A common symptom of this is one or both people feel that being right or winning short term ("my way or the highway!") is more important than long-term mutual acceptance and respect;


  • one or both people aren't using, effective-communication skills; and/or...

  • one or both people feel that all perceived compromises will violate their personal integrity and dignity, and they're not willing to do that.

Can you think of other causes of social impasses? Note the implication: impasses are a symptom of the real problems.

Impasse-resolution Options

      The first option is for all people in an impasse to take responsibility for honestly assessing themselves for psychological wounds and committing to reducing any that they find via Lesson 1 tools. Significant psychological wounds are a core cause of most (all?) role and relationship problems. Reluctance to self-assess and/or to follow up strongly suggests false-self dominance and probably a low-nurturance social environment.

      An equally-valuable option is for all people stuck in a major impasse to...

  • commit to progressing at Lesson 2 - i.e. to patiently studying and applying effective communication skills. Then...

  • if mutually-respectful problem-solving doesn't succeed, use the Serenity Prayer and agree to disagree.

In my experience, reluctance or ambivalence about doing this and denying or justifying it are sure signs of significant psychological wounds.

      Another symptom of wounds + unawareness + unresolved values conflicts is....

Relationship "Cutoffs"

      When disagreements become intolerable and hope of resolution dies, people "cut off" contact with the other person/s ("I'll have nothing more to do with Sarah's family.") The cutoff may be mutual or one-way.

      Typically, no one snared in a relationship cutoff is aware of the underlying causes of their impasse or the resolution-options above. Anyone can learn and patiently apply these options to see if the impasse will free up over time. The essential first step is to work toward putting your true Self steadily in charge of your other personality subselves.

      This brief YouTube video explores relationship cutoffs:

      Options - also see these articles on reacting well to prejudice and hostile people.

       Reflect - have any relationship impasses or cutoffs affected you? Try applying what you've read above to better understand what may have caused them, and what you may do about them. What do you want to do now?


       This article defines and illustrates values conflicts, proposes what causes them, notes two types of values conflict (internal and interpersonal), and suggests specific steps to avoid and reduce them. Key steps are...

  • learning to assess for and reduce significant psychological wounds (Lesson 1 in this Web site), and...

  • learning to practice effective-communication basics and skills (Lesson 2).

The article also offers perspective and resolution suggestions for two special kinds of values conflicts - impasses and relationship "cutoffs." It includes links to relevant resource articles in this Web site.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise true Self or ''someone else''?

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Next, learn about your family with this values-conflict worksheet.

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